Heat Rises in Do the Right Thing

This week’s class review exemplifies the idea that you can learn more from a movie with multiple viewings. I first saw Do the Right Thing in high school and struggled with it. And while Lee’s breakthrough film still isn’t one of my all-time-faves, on second viewing I think I understood it better. Here’s a clip from the film…

From the first frame of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), it is clear that this will be an aggressive movie. Tina (Rosie Perez) dances frantically to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, gritting her teeth, grinding her hips, and throwing punches into the air. The sequence lasts for the length of the entire song—a rarity—and the editing is just as insistent as Tina’s dancing with precise, sharp cuts.

The song and the frenzied tone carry through the entire film as tension builds in Brooklyn. On the hottest day of the year, on a poor city block, pizza delivery boy, Mookie (Spike Lee), is at the center of the action as the neighborhood’s long-term bigotry ripens into violence. Do the Right Thing subtly focuses on a push-pull friction between non-violent rebellion and violent retribution. Mookie is often the voice of reason as racial conflicts continue to arise: he talks down his friend, Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) from starting a fight in Sal’s Pizzeria and then forces Sal’s son, Pino (John Tuturro) to think about his own racism. Yet Mookie ultimately breaks under the pressure of the neighborhood’s pain by taking violent action in the film’s climax.

It’s a film where the word, “fucking” is traded like currency. Where everyone is yelling at everyone for reasons both profound and trivial. A film where music defines identity, particularly with Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) carrying around a giant boom box, constantly blasting “Fight the Power.” Where all the characters are at war and the major dividing lines are the eternal battles of young vs. old, black vs. white, or love vs. hate.

Spike Lee wears many hats in Do the Right Thing as producer, writer, director, and star. As such, every choice in the film conveys a heightened sense of Lee’s aesthetic. For example, much is made of the heat in the movie. Radio host Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) as the eyes of the block tells his audience how hot the weather is while reminding them to cool down—a warning that works on many levels. Visually, the film is noted for its use of vibrant, sizzling color. And Brooklyn itself becomes a major player in the film as its raw, red-brick walls reflect and amplify the heat.

Lee’s cleverness extends to his positioning of the camera, as the lens takes on the perspective of various characters. The skill of Do the Right Thing is in forcing the audience to identify, or at the very least witness, the viewpoints of characters from every level of the social strata on the block. The camera and narrative tend to stick with Mookie, but shifts around because of the high tensions latent in each individual. To examine one issue too closely would be to ignite a powder keg. And that is exactly what happens as the camera whirls between Sal (Danny Aiello) and Radio Raheem, whose mutual violent outbursts end in destruction.

Though the emotions are amplified to the point of being unreal, the ensemble cast makes each over-the-top line feel honest and natural. As the film’s ringleader, Spike Lee makes a statement that is harried and loud. The ending is the most effective moment, however, with the dual quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X regarding violence and non-violence giving the film a quiet clarity that finally calms the raging passion of Do the Right Thing.

Point Blank Brings the Action

Today’s installment of class reviews focuses on foreign films. Living in a big city like LA, New York, or Chicago, these films are readily accessible. But in some smaller towns (and trust me I’ve lived in one), foreign films are a rare commodity and most people are quite hesitant about them. For those of you that lean towards the hesitant side, this film might be a good one to test out. Enjoy!

Fred Cavayé’s Point Blank (2010) begins with a literal bang as intrepid thief, Hugo Sartet (Roschdy Zem), slams into a metal door in the midst of a chase. Sartet is wounded, limping heavily as he runs, and is being followed by two menacing men in black, toting guns. He makes a call to his mysterious associate in rapid-fire French and turns into an underground highway. The men gain on Sartet. He pauses, seeking his getaway driver on the road. And then Sartet is run over by a motorcycle, the cyclist goes flying, and the two pursuers melt back into the shadows. This opening sequence sets the frantic pace for the entire film. Point Blank is a movie that asks its audience to keep up with the action and only allows minor moments to catch your breath.

Yet Point Blank is not merely Sartet’s story. The film readily switches perspectives from harried nurse-in-training Samuel Pierret (Gilles Lellouche), his largely pregnant wife, Nadia (Elena Anaya), bad-cop Commandant Patrick Werner (Gérard Lanvin), and good-cop Commandant Fabre (Mireille Perrier). Each of these characters has something on the line; the stakes of Point Blank are very clear. Nadia is in danger of losing her baby unless she takes bed rest, but then she is kidnapped. Samuel is desperate to get his wife and child back, but he must help Sartet escape his hospital bed. Sartet is trying to find the man who framed him for murder, but he needs to escape Samuel’s care. And so on and so forth.

Each plot point is straight forward. Together they create dynamic layers to enhance the film’s narrative.
For those American audiences who feel gun-shy about foreign films, Point Blank is the perfect entry point into modern French movies. The dialogue is simple and easy to follow for those not used to scanning the screen for subtitles. The twists come from the high-octane action sequences as details are revealed by the physical decisions the characters make. For example, the two gun-toting men from the opening sequence are revealed to be dirty cops when they walk into a crime scene with Werner. Even in moments of relative rest the film constantly reminds its viewers of the chase.

Audiences may be familiar with at least one of the faces in Point Blank. Fans of the paranormal fantasy Van Helsing (2004) may recognize Elena Anaya, who played murderous bride of Dracula, Aleera. Anaya also appears in The Land of Women (2007), and is the only principle character that has directly crossed over into Hollywood. Yet the creative team for Point Blank should instill confidence for audiences as they have worked together many times before on films that have a distinct Hollywood feel, so their process is virtually streamlined. Director and writer Fred Cavayé often teams up with scenario writer Guillaume Lemans for films like Anything for Her (2008), starring Diane Kruger, and The Next Three Days (2010), starring Russell Crowe. Each of these films from the writer-director duo has strong elements of action and suspense, which Point Blank utilizes to its fullest. Ultimately Point Blank transcends national borders to be an enjoyable example of a modern action film that all audiences can connect with.

The Good, The Bad, and The Bling Ring

This Thursday I decided to post my midterm from the film reviewing class I’m taking. There was an additional week where I did a 300 word review for this film but essentially the post before you is just an expansion of that shorter review. And since I do love to ramble, I’m giving you my long form. Enjoy.

As a film critic, friends and family often ask me what I think of the latest crop at the box office as if I have the secret to understanding movies. My answer is always to explain the difference between liking a film and thinking a film was good. While such basic terms are naturally subjective, they are not mutually exclusive either: technically “good” films can be enjoyable to a mass audience. Finding that perfect combination of the two in a single film is the eternal struggle of Hollywood. I have loved films that were critically panned and loathed more than a few that were lauded. The latest example to come across my keyboard is Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013), which is not what I would call a “good” movie but it is a film that I cannot get enough of.

Based on the bubblegum true crime story, which debuted as a Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales, The Bling Ring luxuriates in the selfishness of five teenagers that robbed celebrity homes from October of 2008 to August 2009. The film does not explicitly state the time frame, but the story could have benefited from a stronger sense of time and place. Scenes of decadent robbery are repeated one on top of the other with little concept of the moments that stand between each crime. As a critic, I think this repetition is a central flaw that keeps The Bling Ring from being a “good” movie. As a fan, I am captivated by the voyeuristic element of invading celebrity homes that apes reality television with a dark twist.

When members of the real bling ring were caught in 2009, seven people were arrested. Coppola chose to focus her story slightly by following five of the culprits, and this decision has led to a stronger ensemble dynamic. Truly, the writer/director’s long-standing interest with self-involved characters has found its pinnacle with these fame obsessed teenagers who readily manipulate the truth for their own benefit. Coppola’s story flirts back and forth with the past and present identities of her young criminals with simulated interviews and therapy sessions after the teens have been caught. These post-crime scenes are full of white light to add the illusion of a halo over the young devils, who masterfully contradict the story playing before the audience’s eyes so that they evade culpability. Emma Watson as Nicki Moore shines brightest in these sequences of denial, her performance the perfect modern, nasal Valley Girl. If one cares to look up the abundant video clips of the real life Nicki, Alexis Neiers, then Watson’s performance reaches the level of uncanny reproduction. Unfortunately for the other young actors—Israel Broussard, Katie Chang, Claire Julien, and Taissa Farmiga—their collective performances did not yield a breakout moment. The problem here is that they were sufficiently superficial in their respective roles as Marc, Rebecca, Chloe, and Sam to the point that they disappeared into those roles. That is not to say that there is no potential for these budding artists, as I believe they were well cast, merely that they did not grab fame at this particular moment.

The Bling Ring beautifully illustrates Coppola’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer and director more so than other films in her opus. The good and the bad of this film create a push-pull that is borderline dizzying. For instance, one of Sophia Coppola’s hallmarks is the use of on-trend music as an additional character or layer for her films. The electro-pop soundtrack featuring the likes of Azealia Banks, Kanye West, and Deadmau5 are precisely on the frantic pulse of youth. Yet the film is strongest when Coppola allows silence. The scene where Rebecca (Katie Chang) and Marc (Israel Broussard) break into Audrina Patridge’s house has a distant, doll-house perspective and its eerie quiet adds a much needed sense of tension. The teenage sense of immortality needed to be brought low at least once and the film never really tarnishes that veneer of being untouchable. Another strength of the film is Coppola’s ability to utilize the mixed media trend that seems to be on the rise in Hollywood. The Bling Ring opens with actual footage pulled from a celebrity’s security camera during the robberies and Coppola intercuts the narrative with news stories and Facebook feeds. Nevertheless the issue of repetition lingers throughout the film from beginning to end, and while this is arguably her most successful film since Lost in Translation (2003), The Bling Ring proves that Coppola could benefit from more forceful editing.

Placing the film within the scope of its peers might better illustrate the difficulties of “liking” The Bling Ring versus judging its quality as “good” or “bad.” Looking back on the films of 2013, it is clear that Hollywood has created a yearlong ode to American Greed, and The Bling Ring falls somewhere around stanza two. Why stanza two you may ask? The second stanza is not where poets place their best lines or images. Stanza two is necessary to the larger purpose of a poem but typically lacks the power of the first and last stanzas. 2013 began its ode with Blue Jasmine, a subtle, esoteric study of Acting (yes, the capital A is necessary) and rounded off the theme of hedonism with the stunning excess of The Wolf of Wall Street. Coppola’s film is more closely aligned with Spring Breakers— another American Greed based teen drama—with its kitschy plot and bright color palette. It’s interesting to note that yellow factors prominently into the marketing of The Wolf of Wall Street, Spring Breakers, and The Bling Ring, making yellow the color of greed instead of the expected green. These are all films for a new generation who inhabit a world where internet savvy and celebrity branding are as natural as breathing. While Coppola does a fair job of capturing that world with her characters and displays of fame mongering, The Bling Ring falls short in comparison to these filmic giants of American Greed. I may like the film, but I would not recommend it over its counterparts; that, in essence, is why The Bling Ring is not a “good” movie.

Fruitvale Station and the Authority of Violence

Here is another installment of my class reviews. As a writer sometimes it’s hard to wrestle with word limits and they do tend to crop up. I felt like I had so much to say about Fruitvale Station, but I’m also learning the valuable lesson of concision.

In 2009, a young black man was shot by a police officer in the midst of arrest. The event was captured by witnesses’ camera phones, and is a staggering reminder of the continued presence of racial based violence. Four years later, writer/director Ryan Coogler brought Oscar Grant’s story to the big screen with his first feature, Fruitvale Station (2013).

Coogler’s sense for visuals adds poignancy to the film’s social commentary so that it not only speaks to its audience but demands to be heard. The film opens with footage from the 2009 shooting, and Coogler quickly establishes the casual nature of violence within Oscar’s life. Some moments are subtle, such as the pit bull run over in the street. Other moments are overt, like the flashback where Oscar’s eye is bruised and he is easily provoked by the taunts of another inmate. Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) is compassionate and heartbroken by the dog’s violent end, yet defiant and barely contained in prison. Fruitvale’s Oscar is not a perfect man but he is compelling as he strives to avoid conflict at every turn.

The cast is remarkably well suited to the message of this film. As a tough maternal figure Octavia Spencer is at her most powerful when she tells the nurse all Oscar wanted was to be loved. Michael B Jordan can say more with his eyes than most young actors can manage with dialogue. Actors Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray—Officers Caruso and Ingram—are interesting choices for the violent, white officers. Durand is oftentimes plays the dumb brute and Murray the fumbling, pretty boy. Their roles in Fruitvale fit their respective molds, perhaps adding yet another layer of commentary on stereotypes to the film.

The brilliance of the Fruitvale Station lies in the editing to keep the tension rising in a story where the audience already knows the ending. Claudia Castillo and Michael P. Shawver prevent the audience from seeing the act of violence; instead they use clever cuts and sound. For example, the potent sound of a whirring train appears throughout the film and is layered under more mundane noises like running water. The power of violence and the film itself is then in our minds.

Reviewing a Classic: The Breakfast Club

Here is my second installment of my class reviews. Not everything we watch in class is recent. Sometimes it’s hard to get a handle on criticizing a film that has been around for a while and that people have such strong feelings for already. Luckily, it’s not hard to write about The Breakfast Club. (I recently nabbed this cult classic at Target for $7.50. It’s a must have for any movie buff.)

Here’s a clip from the film…

Few films have the capacity to define a generation in a way that John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club (1985) has. More importantly, the film still resonates with audiences nearly thirty years later. In theory, the film could have been a talking heads scenario with its extensive use of medium shots, but there is an insuppressible liveliness throughout the entire story. Trapped in a school library for detention—a stew room for sexual tension and broiling honesty—six teens spend their Saturday confronting the weight of expectations and themselves.

The principle characters begin as stereotypes. Together the cast’s performances and writer/director John Hughes’ dialogue cocoons these characters in a tangible reality. Molly Ringwald’s performance as Claire still stands as one of the most powerful Queen Bees of high school dramas; her authority comes from her vulnerability as much as from her icy reserve. Just as Judd Nelson as John Bender will forever rule as King of teen rebellion because we see his private turmoil. It is telling that audiences remember the actors of The Breakfast Club first and the names of their characters second. Emilio Estevez is Andrew Clark. Anthony Michael Hall is Brian Johnson. Ally Sheedy is Allison Reynolds. Audiences want to believe that these individuals were not acting and that these roles represent a quintessential part of their being.

The Breakfast Club is still relevant for teens today as it deals with issues of gay shaming, cliques, and drug use. At its core, the film is about confronting each other’s faults. Imagine the ensemble cast as a cracked mirror and each character only has one piece of the truth. Little by little they reassemble the mirror so each can catch a glimpse of who they really are. It’s a film where using the word “fuck” is the great equalizer and everyone is angry or scared about their past, present, and future. Yet their time in the library unifies them, at least temporarily, and as Bender pumps his fist in the air, you feel an overwhelming sense of success and hope. That hope is what makes The Breakfast Club a cult classic and makes the film infinitely watchable, even today.

A Very Bubblewrapped Homecoming: The Spectacular Now

I’m about three months out from completing my M.A. in film studies. Part of this last semester is taking a film reviewing class, so in order to get back into the groove of blogging I decided to share my reviews. Each week we watch a film that is either a classic or from last year’s crop of stunners, and the following week we turn in a review with a maximum of 375 words. The word limit is the real challenge because I often have more to say about a movie than 375 words can convey, but that is part of the fun too. Learning to be concise is one of the toughest lessons a writer faces. It’s right up there with getting past the dreaded blinking cursor. So without further ado, here are my brief thoughts on The Spectacular Now.

Here is the trailer, if you’re interested.

Everyone remembers high school, but few people want to stay in that moment forever.  The exception to the rule is Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), the eternal good-time-guy in James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now (2013). Staring down the barrel of a blank college application and an uncertain future, Sutter would like nothing better than to continue his tenure as party king of his local high school. After being dumped by his girlfriend, Sutter seeks refuge in shy, geeky Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodly), who challenges his perceptions of how to connect with another person. His ubiquitous spiked Big Gulp in hand, Sutter must decide whether to join his peers in growing up or to stagnate in his small town.

Miles Teller consistently plays the incorrigible slacker. It is a role that Teller has all but perfected in films such as 21 & Over (2013) and That Awkward Moment (2014) where his charm and wit enable a lonesome friend to discover something about themselves. If this is to be Teller’s niche as an actor, then his performance is spot on. Shailene Woodly is equally charismatic as Aimee, though in a quieter, more endearing way. From the offset Aimee is positioned as an angelic force in Sutter’s life, and Woodly plays the character with such finesse that she does not feel as if she is acting. The dynamic, natural chemistry between Woodly and Teller is what makes The Spectacular Now seem like well edited reality rather than a stylized studio film.

Pondsolt’s film straddles the divide between teen comedy and serious drama with remarkable ease. It is the quintessential quiet Independent film with some loud thoughts on life. While there are many themes that the story grapples with—the perils of facing the future, battling addiction in its many forms, or the unforgiving throes of first love—The Spectacular Now is able to address each troubling concept with a raw honesty that audiences will be drawn to.